In case you have wondered where I’ve been for the last nine months, I have been writing my eleventh book. A LONG WAY HOME is a step away from my mostly nineteenth-century Texas historical tales.

The seed for A LONG WAY HOME took root immediately after 9/11. For some reason that would require a psychiatrist to explain, I thought of a woman whose husband had abused her for years deciding to disappear when the towers fell. The idea ginned in my head for days, which prompted me to write a short story about Meredith Haggerty––the woman who became very real to me.

The story proved too raw for publishing and I tucked it away. But the character I created did not go away. She squirreled around in my head during the time I wrote five Texas books, lectured on Texas history, had a houseful of grandchildren, and other good life things.

During that fallow period, I heard a program in which people sent in anonymous statements revealing secrets that no one knew about them. A person wrote that “everyone thought I died on 9/11.” That secret shook me. My idea wasn’t nuts.

I am not done with A LONG WAY HOME. The first draft is finished and I will be going over it until it feels ready.

Meantime, the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association (PNWA) has notified me that out of over 700 submissions from all over the world, A LONG WAY HOME is one of nine finalists in its 2019 Literary Contest.

A hint for you Texas fans: Meredith ends up in the Rio Grande Valley. You know me, I can’t leave Texas out of the story.


I am sharing a review of WATERS PLANTATION, my latest historical fiction. It’s another Texas tale for you lovers of Texas history.




Texas After Independence

General Santa Anna was disgraced and removed from power by Mexican officials when they heard he had lost an eighteen-minute battle against a much-smaller Texan force on April 21, 1836. Therefore, Mexico gave no value to the treaty Santa Anna signed granting Texas its independence. Santa Anna regained favor with the Mexican people in 1838 and won the presidency. (Watch this site next week for the story of Santa Anna’s amazing ability to return time after time to power.)

One of Santa Anna’s generals sent a warning to Texans in January 1842 of an impending attack if Texans continued insisting on their independence. The following March, Mexican troops invaded Goliad, Refugio, and Victoria. By the time they reached San Antonio, the frightened populace had abandoned the city. The Mexicans withdrew, but they left the settlements along the western edge of Texas in panic, demanding that President Sam Houston send an army into Mexico to halt the attacks.

Houston, anxious to avoid another expensive war and to work instead toward building a strong republic, reluctantly made appeals to the United States for money and volunteers in preparation for an invasion of Mexico. The needed assistance from the United States never arrived. Then on September 11, 1842, General Adrián Woll, with 1,200 Mexican troops, captured San Antonio.

Texans heard of the Mexican occupation and sent out a call for more volunteers. As men arrived, they gathered just outside San Antonio at an advantageous site on Salado Creek. On September 18, they finally lured Woll into a battle, and because of the Texans’ strategic position, they held off the Mexican advance. The following morning, the Texans discovered that Woll’s army had slipped away during the night.

Meantime, Capt. Nicholas M. Dawson had heard the call for help and raised a company of fifty-three men from the La Grange area. On the same day that Texans were skirmishing with Woll, less than two miles away a disaster was taking place.

Dawson had rushed headlong into battle with Mexican cavalry patrols only to be overpowered by a column of 500, reinforced by two cannons. When the cavalry pulled back and opened fire with the cannons, Dawson’s men were completely overpowered.  Despite trying to surrender, survivors claimed the Mexicans continued firing. By the time the fight ended in late afternoon, thirty-six had been killed, two had escaped, and fifteen prisoners were marched to Perot Prison in the Mexican state of Vera Cruz. Word spread that the dead in the Dawson Massacre had been buried where they fell among the mesquite trees.

Sam Houston finally called on Alexander Somervell, a customs officer from Matagorda Island, to organize a volunteer militia to punish the Mexican Army for the attacks. Somerville raised a force of 700 young men who were eager for revenge, for adventure, and for plunder. The expedition left San Antonio at the end of November 1842 and captured Laredo on December 7. Finding little wealth to plunder, the men ransacked Laredo. Somerville, who had not been eager for the expedition, realized he was losing control of his command, and that they would be facing a much better trained and stronger Mexican Army as they marched south. On December 19, he ordered his men to disband and head home.

A group of 308 Texans, including five captains, ignored Somerville’s command and under the leadership of William S. Fisher, continued their march down the Rio Grande to Ciudad Mier where they agreed to wait for supplies. When the goods did not arrive, the Texans attacked on Christmas Day. They fought into the night against a much larger Mexican force before finally surrendering. As captives, they began the long march south toward prison. On February 11, 1843, the Texans overpowered their guards and fled into the arid mountains of Mexico, to roam for six days without food and water. When the Mexican troops rounded up the starving Texans, orders came from an infuriated Santa Anna to execute each of the 176 captives. The government changed the decree to executing every tenth man.

Seventeen black beans were placed in a pot of white beans. Some accounts say that the black beans were added last and that the officers were required to be the first to draw, then the selection proceeded in alphabetical order. A firing squad executed the men holding the black

Drawing of Black Beans
by Charles Mclaughlin, one of Mier prisoners published 1845 in Thomas J. Green’s memoir “Journal of the Texian Expedition Against Mier”

beans. The other prisoners eventually reached Perote Prison. Over time, some escaped, family and friends arranged a few releases, and some died of illness and starvation. Finally, on September 16, 1844, Santa Anna ordered the release of the remaining 104 Texas prisoners.

At the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-48), Captain John E. Dusenbury who had drawn a white bean returned to the burial site of his dead comrades. He exhumed the remains and carried them by ship to Indianola and then by wagon to LaGrange. The citizens of LaGrange retrieved the remains of those who had died in the Dawson Massacre outside San Antonio.  All of the fallen were reinterred in a common tomb housed in a cement vault on a 200-foot bluff overlooking LaGrange. Today, the gravesite is part of the Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Sites.

Monument Hill, LaGrange
Texas Parks & Wildlife.


A Texas historical marker on FM 770, a few miles east of Saratoga in deep East Texas, credits Lancelot “Lance” Rosier with being one of the individuals responsible for the creation of the Big Thicket National Preserve, a sprawling wonderland of biodiversity so unique that UNESCO designated the region a Biosphere Reserve in 1981.

A self-taught naturalist, Lance Rosier was born and grew up in the heart of the Big Thicket. As a child he roamed the forest, grew familiar with every trail; he knew every baygall (shallow, stagnant water), and the name of every plant. An avid reader of botanical publications, he became the foremost authority on the flora of the Big Thicket.  Rosier served as a guide for Hal B. Parks and Victor L. Cory, botanists in the 1930s who authored the Biological Survey of the East Texas Big Thicket, the “Bible” of those wishing to preserve the area.

Lance Rosier, “Mr. Big Thicket”

Original Big Thicket covering much of Southeast Texas

The Big Thicket has always presented a challenge to those who wanted to exploit its riches and to men like Rosier who worked to preserve its unique character. As early as the 17th Century, when Texas was part of the Spanish Colonial Empire, the forest of ninety-eight-foot longleaf pine trees measuring up to six feet in diameter towered over dense growths of six-foot palmetto trees, beech trees, fern, cacti, orchids, and carnivorous plants. The padres who established Spanish missions in East Texas traveled a route that circled north of the 3.5 million-acre swath of Southeast Texas that sprawled from near Nacogdoches to near present Beaumont.

Long before the Spanish arrived, mound-building Caddo Indians and other tribes from along the Gulf coast used the thicket for hunting deer, bear, panthers, and wolves.  At the end of the 18th Century, Alabama and Coushatta Indians migrated into the region and settled in the thicket in the 1830s.

Called “the thicket” because of the dense plant growth and cypress swamps, the region offered ideal hiding places for emigrants coming to Texas to escape legal problems such as bankruptcy and criminal charges in the United States. During the Civil War, when the Confederate government began conscription in 1862, men who did not want to join the army, men who did not own slaves and saw no reason to fight for big plantation owners, hid out in the thicket. They survived on the abundance of fish, small game, and wild berries. They set up secret locales where their families brought them coffee and tobacco in exchange for honey, wild game, and fish the families sold in nearby Beaumont.

Lance Rosier grew up listening to the stories about the thicket and the timber barons who began clear-cutting the forests in the mid-1800s and turned the region into a lumber bonanza after the railroad arrived in the 1880s. By the time Spindletop blew in south of Beaumont in 1901, the thicket had been reduced to about 300,000 acres and the oil industry brought more frantic development into the area.

After serving in the army in World War I, Rosier returned to his homeland and worked as a timber cruiser (someone who measures a plot of forest to estimate the quality and quantity of timber in that stand) and he led Big Thicket tours for anyone seeking his expertise including scientists, photographers, students, scholars, and conservationists. Rosier also led politicians such as Texas Governor Price Daniel and Speaker of the U.S. House Sam Rayburn as they explored possibilities of making the Big Thicket a Texas state park.

A shy and retiring little man, Rosier is said to have lent a sense of spiritual zeal to his quest to save the thicket. He cataloged hundreds of species of new plants and discovered plants that had been considered extinct. Rosier worked with the original East Texas Big Thicket Association that began in 1927 hoping to save the land and waterways. When that project met political headwinds, he led a new movement that became the Big Thicket Association in the early 1960s.

Remaining units of the Big Thicket National Preserve

Lance Rosier died in 1970, four years before his dream came true. Congress passed a bill in 1974 to establish the first national preserves in this country––the 84,550-acre Big Thicket National Preserve and the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. The Big Thicket is a string of nine separate land units and several creek corridors. Today, the Lance Rosier Unit at 25,024 acres is the largest and most diversified preserve in the thicket. It encompasses the land where Rosier was born and roamed as a child.

Cypress Swamp, Rosier Preserve
Greg Lasley, Nature Photographer

Texas Retrieves A 16th Century Treasure

Three Spanish galleons, caught in a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, wrecked on the sandbars just off Padre Island on April 29, 1554. Ironically, as the flotilla sailed from Veracruz, a Dominican missionary on his way for an audience with the Pope, shared his sinister forebodings: “Woe be to those who are going to Spain. Neither we nor the fleet will ever arrive there. Most of us will perish before then, and those who survive will endure intolerable hardships, which will cause the deaths of most of them.”

Map of wreckage. Courtesy Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History

The San Esteban was a merchant ship called a carrack such as this one. Courtesy National Park Service

Four vessels began the journey loaded with about 400 people—old conquistadores and Spanish families heading for home, merchants whose wealth was stored in the ships’ holds, and soldiers eager to see their homeland—plus bars of gold and silver bullion, and chests of freshly minted coins. Twenty days into the Gulf of Mexico, a vicious storm hit with such force that the ships fought to stay afloat. One vessel, the San Andrés, which was severely damaged, limped into port at Havana. The other three, the San Esteban, the Espíritu Santo, and the Santa María Yciar carrying about 300 passengers, tossed without control until all three ships sank within two and a half miles of each other about a half-mile from the coast. Over half of the passengers, grabbing anything they could find to save themselves, drowned before reaching shore. Only the San Esteban remained visible above the waves. The ship’s master and probably the most skilled sailors rescued one of the small boats and left for Veracruz to seek help. Other survivors salvaged food and supplies. Believing a Spanish outpost lay within a few days march, they began walking, unaware that it was 300 miles to Tampico. Only one man, Francisco Vasquez, elected to remain with the wreckage and wait for rescue.

The group met local Indians and accepted the natives’ offer of food, only to be attacked when they reached the campsite. As the Spaniards fled, some of them stripped off their clothing thinking that’s what the Indians wanted. The Indians continued the chase, killing the terrified survivors as they ran and inflicting others with arrows including Fray Marcos de Mena who took seven arrows. His companions, thinking he would soon die, buried him with only his head exposed hoping to protect his body from wild animals. The warmth of the sand apparently revived Fray Marcos, and he dug his way out. As he continued walking, he came upon the ultimate horror—all his companions lay dead. Fighting mosquitos, hunger, and thirst, he pushed on, finally coming to a river only to discover that it was salty. Two Indians found him, gave him food and water, and as they carried him on a bed of hay, they kept saying only one word, “Tampico.” The village lay only a short distance away.

When Fray Marcos’ report of the wreckage verified the account of the survivors who had returned earlier on the boat, the viceroy ordered a salvage expedition to retrieve some of the most valuable cargoes ever to leave the New World. Six salvage ships reached the site in July 1554 and found the emaciated and joyful Francisco Vasquez and the partially exposed San Esteban. Divers retrieved almost 36,000 pounds of treasure, about forty-one percent of the original cargo.

Four hundred years later, in 1967 the Texas General Land Office received information that an out-of-state salvage crew recovered artifacts off Padre Island near Port Mansfield inside the 10.35-mile coastal boundary that belonged to the state of Texas. The company doing the

Oldest dated Astrolabe in the world. Courtesy Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History

recovering was not licensed to operate in Texas, and after several years of lawsuits Texas recovered all the artifacts and the salvage company was awarded over $300,000.

Anchor salvaged from the wreck. Courtesy Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.

The thousands of treasures, encrusted with centuries of hard calcium carbonate deposits, included a small solid-gold crucifix, a gold bar, several silver discs, cannons, and crossbows. The most valuable find was three astrolabes, extremely rare navigational instruments used in the sixteenth century. The Texas Legislature passed an Antiquities Bill in 1969, which protects and preserves archeological landmarks and resources and sets strict limits on salvaging and excavation by individuals and companies. Although the Santa María had been destroyed in the 1950s during the dredging of the Port Mansfield Channel, excavations in the 1973-74 season, used more advanced techniques to probe the layers of sand and shell to reach the treasures lying in a thick deposit of clay. Over 26,000 pounds of encrusted artifacts were recovered, including a large enough fragment of one ship to estimate the length of the vessel between seventy and ninety-seven feet. After the materials were processed and cataloged, the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History was named repository of the collection.

Padre Island, A Story of Hope and Heartbreak

The treasures of Padre Island, playground on the Texas Gulf Coast, reveal far more than sandy beaches and sand dunes rippling in the steady breeze. Dig beneath the sand castles and you find a legacy of grand visions and broken dreams.

South Padre Island
Courtesy City of South Padre Island.

Padre, a textbook example of a barrier reef island, edges the Texas coast for 113 miles from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande. Its width varies from a few hundred yards to about three miles.

South Padre, the town on the southern tip of the island, enjoys a year-round tourist industry from spring breakers who hang from the rafters of elegant hotels to families who come at other times in search of a retreat from the summer heat and winter chill.

Padre Nicolas Balli

Approaching the southern end of the island from Port Isabel, travelers cross Queen Isabella Causeway as it rises majestically over Laguna Madre and the Intracoastal Canal to offer the first view of high-rise hotels and condominiums, surf and sand, fun and sun of South Padre Island. In anticipation of an exciting holiday, it is easy to overlook the life-size statue of Padre José Nicolás Ballí welcoming visitors with open arms to his island.

A secular Catholic priest, Padre Ballí was born about 1770 in Reynosa, Mexico, the oldest son of a wealthy Spanish colonial family who owned more than a million acres of land in South Texas. Padre Ballí served as a missionary in the villas and haciendas along the lower Rio Grande. In 1800 he applied for a Spanish land grant of 11.5 leagues (about 154,280 acres) on “Corpus Christi Island,” one of the many names given to Padre Island.

Padre Ballí took his nephew Juan José Ballí as a partner, had the land surveyed, and established the island’s first settlement in 1804 called Rancho Santa Cruz, which lay about 26 miles north of the present town of South Padre. The Ballís ran large herds of cattle, horses, and sheep on their land, and the Padre established a mission to Christianize the Karankawa Indians who lived on the island.

Although the title did not clear until 1829, eight months after his death, Padre Ballí left one-half the land to his nephew Juan and the other one-half to Juan’s brothers and sisters. Juan left for a time and then returned and lived on the island until his death in 1853.

In 1847 a three-masted schooner wrecked during a storm near the south end of Padre Island. Captain John F. Singer, his wife, Johanna, and several sons were the only survivors. The family built a house using material from their ship and wreckage they found along the shore from other vessels.

Mrs. Singer inherited wealth, and in 1851, she bought the Ballí interest in Rancho Santa Cruz. The family rebuilt the ranch, raised large herds of cattle, and grew vegetables, which they took by raft to sell in Port Isabel. John Singer became wreck master of Padre Island and made huge profits salvaging material from destroyed ships washing ashore. In 1861 Singer told the postmaster in Brownsville that he had received a letter from his brother Merritt informing John the $500 he loaned Merritt enabled him to obtain a patent on a device making the newly invented sewing machine more practical for home use. His invention made Merritt quite wealthy and he was authorizing John to draw $150,000 from his bank.

John Singer planned to establish a steamship line from Brazos Island to New Orleans; however, the Civil War halted Singer’s dream. The Singers, known as Union sympathizers, fled to the mainland near Corpus Christi. Stories claim they buried gold and silver worth $62,000 before they left.

The Union army occupied Padre Island for the duration of the war, used the cattle to feed their forces, and tore the ranch apart to build their military installation. When the Singers returned after the war, they discovered shifting sand destroyed every landmark, every guide to where they hid the treasure. After his wife died, John Singer left the island permanently.

Over the years, the Ballí family continued selling pieces of their land believing they retained mineral rights. Meantime, Sam Robertson, a railroad man who laid the tracks for the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico Railway in the early 1900s, saw potential in the rich delta land

Don Patricio Causeway constructed by Sam Robertson.

near the Rio Grande. He developed present San Benito north of Brownsville, and then he turned his development eye to Padre Island. The stretch of hotels and condominiums visitors see today in South Padre represent the dream Robertson visualized forty-five years too early. He saw Padre and Brazos islands as Texas’ biggest resort areas. He confidently began developing the full length of Padre Island—established a ferry across the bay from Corpus Christi in 1927 and built twelve miles of asphalt road to his Twenty-five Mile Hotel. He completed a toll bridge to Brazos Santiago from Boca Chica at the mouth of the Rio Grande, built a bridge between Padre and Mustang islands (at the north end of Padre), and constructed a two-way causeway across Laguna Madre at the midway point on the island.

The stock market crash in 1929 forced abandonment of his scheme and the 1933 hurricane blew away all the new roads and bridges, bringing a devastating end to Robertson’s last big dream. He died in 1938.

Ballí descendants grew to over 300 and continued legal claims over the years to collect vast oil and gas mineral royalties. The Ballí heirs won an $11million award in 2005 claiming they were defrauded out of their mineral rights in 1938; however, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the family in 2008 claiming the family filed their suit after the statute of limitation expired.

When vacationers romp in the Gulf water, build sand castles along the beach, and relax in the luxurious hotels, not many know this tiny strip of sand offers a history rich in grandiose plans and devastating disappointments.


Note: This story and 112 more are in my latest book TEXAS TALES, STORIES THAT SHAPED A LANDSCAPE AND A PEOPLE.